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Feature

23 Apr 2019

Photos by Richard Pearce

Apex Predator – 917 at 50: Part 2

Hands on with the most powerful Porsche ever made

The second part of our celebration of the 917 is dedicated to the car we’ve been lucky enough to photograph. The 917/30, built in tiny numbers for the 1973 Can-Am season, was the apotheosis of the programme, the most powerful and most competitive Porsche of all time.
 
Chassis 005, belonging to PCGB member Peter Harburg, is a curious slice of Porsche history. It was Donohue’s spare for the ’73 season and was expected to enter full service the following year. But Fate left it languishing at Weissach until well-known US Porsche collector Gerry Sutterfield expressed an interest in acquiring it in 1979. Porsche was only too happy to oblige, building the car that summer to exact Can-Am specification bar the availability of the 5.4-litre motor. An unused 5.0-litre unit was found, good for a useful 800bhp at 1.3 bar.
 
Built with a painstaking care that could not be afforded to the first three chassis, and completed to show standards, Sutterfield’s 917/30 was the most expensive Porsche ever sold to a customer from the factory. It has changed hands a number of times since, finding its way into Peter Harburg’s collection in 2011.
 

 
What makes 005 particularly special is that it is one of only three 917/30s built at Weissach and the only one not to have accumulated race miles. Chassis 004 and 006, the other two unbuilt cars for the ’74 season, were sold to private buyers who assembled them at independent workshops. So of the grand total of six 917/30s ever produced, Peter’s is far and away the most authentic car not to have seen action in period.
 
And Peter has been making up for lost time with ‘005’ ever since. Not only does he drive the 917/30 as much as possible, he is actively involved in sharing the experience: “I feel as custodian I have a responsibility to let as many people as possible see the car and get as much enjoyment out of it as I do. I have raced it in the US for Rennsport, at Phillip Island in Australia and at the Goodwood Festival of Speed several times. It is an incredible honour to drive such a piece of history.”
 
It’s also a huge privilege simply to pour so closely over this most monumental Porsche. Those trademark colour-matched turbofan wheels and huge Avon slicks take some turning with the tiny, slim-rimmed steering wheel and modest lock. In contrast, the scissor-hinged doors are disarmingly flimsy, highlighting one of the glorious contradictions of race cars of this period – at once physical and fragile. 
 

 
The 917/30 is so striking for its single-minded design, a vast, low and immensely wide Spyder body rising gradually into a hugely tall fixed rear wing, the protrusion of which must add a metre to its overall length.
 
The front end is surprisingly bluff, a 917 trait that never found much favour with the men whose feet sat forward of the front axle. It rises sharply over those innumerable louvres, introduced to reduce pressure in the front wheel arch and thereby increase the downforce so essential to taming the car’s blistering speed.
 
The cockpit is a Nirvana of period racing detail, from the angled tacho to the minimal toggle switches. Offset to the right, a narrow, fixed bucket seat offers a crumb of comfort amid the thin tubing and bare strips of fibreglass that bond it. The pedals, hugely heavy by any standard, are perfectly placed, and the overall sensation as you peer over the short semi-circular aeroscreen is one of surprising comfort. A sensation that doubtless diminishes at 8,000rpm in fourth gear.
 

 
To the right of the driver, an exposed gear linkage runs aft from the unfussy metal gear knob­­. Directly to its right, within easy reach, is the finely milled metal dial that regulates boost, with the attendant gauges to the left of the wheel and angled in towards the driver. It is an intoxicating environment, replete with drama, historical significance and no shortage of menace.
 
Beneath that vast rear clam, the 917/30’s drivetrain takes up half of the car, a mesmerising tangle of inlet and exhaust, of distributors, fan and the spider’s web of chassis tubing. The heavy duty four-speed gearbox is flanked by two huge turbos, charging the longitudinal banks of low-slung cylinders. But for all its size and complexity, it is evidently an incredible piece of packaging, born out by the 917/30’s need to handle as well as go.
 
What makes the 917 so special, and therefore the 917/30 the most special of all, is how this car straddled old and new. It represents a rapidly evolving epoch in motorsport, ferociously fast and a capable, utterly uncompromising, cutting edge in period, yet still tangibly analogue in execution. There is no racing car that better sums up Porsche’s extraordinary capacity to invent and evolve, accepting the challenge and returning it tenfold.



Want more? Enjoy a full gallery of photos of the 917/30 here.

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